Film fans rejoice as Dryden Theatre reopens

09:46 PM, Mar 02, 2013

Margaret Corbin tests one of the new seats in the renovated Dryden Theatre on Saturday. The facility was closed for two months while undergoing $595,000 in renovations. (Nick Brandreth)/

Written By Leah Stacy

Saturday was a big night for Rochester film lovers as the George Eastman House revealed a new look for the historic Dryden Theatre.

Round Rochester: Dryden Theatre

The theater closed after holiday screenings of It’s a Wonderful Life in December, and Saturday night was the first time the public had a chance to admire the two-month, $595,000 renovations.

Dryden Theatre board chair Tom Jackson welcomed spectators to the 5:30 p.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony, giving each of the honorary chairs — actor Robert Forster and film critic Jack Garner — a pair of scissors.

Great museums have to have great collections, great conservation, and a curiosity about those collections, and it would be a tragedy if you couldn’t share that with the world,” he said. “Dryden, of course, is essential to our ability to do that, and what we have here is something worthy of the collections we have at the George Eastman House.”

The towering building at 900 East Ave. hadn’t seen new chairs since it opened in 1951. Replacing the teal padded chairs are lush mulberry-red seats. The stage has been painted black to minimize screen reflections, and new lighting fixtures were hung. Advanced technology now allows the theater to show digital pictures as well as film, including nitrate.

Fitting with the night’s vineyard-focused film and wine pairing dinner, Forster and Garner agreed that the the walls are a “wine color, very deep,” replacing the former sea foam-green color scheme.

The great thing about it for a film buff is that these dark walls make it a much better viewing experience,” Garner said. “The darker you can make a room within safety standards, the better it is to see a film. So I love that.”

By popular demand, the original gold curtain remains.

An 8 p.m. screening of the 2004 film Sideways — which follows two middle-aged college buddies on their mishap-filled road trip to the vineyards of California’s Santa Ynez Valley — christened the new theater, along with a sold-out audience of 500.

Alexander Payne, the Academy Award-winning writer-director of Sideways, and writer Rex Pickett were present for an introduction and post-show question-and-answer session.

Among other things, Payne is a really good example of an independent filmmaker who has kept ties to the Eastman House; he understands and appreciates the form,” Garner said. “Sideways is appropriate because it’s a wine movie and we can celebrate — it’s a fun movie.”

Payne also is an advocate for the preservation of historical cinemas in America.

Sometime in the mid-20th century, God died … and in the place of churches grew cinemas,” said Payne. “Cinemas have been the cathedrals of the 20th century, that’s where we go to hope and dream and surrender. When old cinemas are preserved and restored, I feel ennobled. I have a life devoted to cinema. I like seeing my cathedrals renewed and restored.”

A gala dinner at 5:30 p.m., which included accompanying wines inspired by Sideways, was held in the airy Potter Peristyle hall. Tickets for the 130-person event cost $200 and sold out last week.

Forster — a Rochester native who has starred in several films including The Descendants, which Payne directed — and Garner shared a toast to the Dryden Theatre.

I am hoping that many years in the future, I can be watching The Descendants or even the picture we are about to see tonight, Sideways, as a classic,” said Forster. “And I hope it is very far in the future that I will be watching here at the Dryden.”

Garner — introduced as Rochester’s greatest luminary in the area of cinema — echoed his thoughts, thanking many patrons who have supported the venue throughout the years.

With a special note to the many film fans who share my passion for this great and essential art form,” said Garner. “I raise a glass to the beautifully improved and beautifully restored, if you will, Dryden Theatre.”